A Short History of the Black Country Society
by Mick Pearson
The Society celebrated its 40th anniversary in late 2007, it seems an ideal time to reflect on the achievements, successes and personalities that formed and shaped it. As a relative "newcomer" (although Black Country born and bred) I will be drawing on the wealth of material contained within the pages of "The Blackcountryman" and the many other publications the Society has had involvement with.
The Black Country Society was founded in 1967 by enthusiasts led by the late Doctor John Fletcher. Fletcher felt that the Black Country did not receive its fair share of recognition for its great contribution to the industrial development of Britain and the world.
The Society grew out of the Dudley Canal Tunnel Preservation Society (now the Dudley Canal Trust), which had successfully campaigned to save Dudley Canal Tunnel that had been threatened with closure by British Waterways and British Rail. The tunnel is now a major attraction of the Black Country Living Museum.
The stated aim of the Society was:
"To foster interest in the past, present and future of the Black Country"
Its voice, at a specially called meeting on 6th October 1968, was one of the earliest calling for the establishment of The Black Country Living Museum; the Society and individual members have continually supported it.
The quarterly magazine of The Black Country Society is called "The Blackcountryman". In its first 36 years there have been over 2000 authoritative articles on all aspects of The Black Country by historians, researchers, teachers, students, experts and (possibly most importantly) ordinary people with extraordinary tales to tell. (If you have a tale to tell about the Black Country please contact either the website editor or the magazine editor at the email address at the foot of this article- full credit will be given for your work).
In addition to the articles over 600 books written during the period on Black Country subjects have been reviewed in the magazine. The complete (now into its 41st volume) collection constitutes a unique resource for teachers, students and anyone with an interest in the area. Several local libraries have complete collections, and an on-line index is available.
Some 2000 magazines are published each quarter, each of about 2000 members has a copy delivered, and there are a number of sales outlets throughout the Black Country. The magazine is non-commercial and nobody receives payment for articles, and this publication is the most important function of the Black Country Society. The best way to receive your magazine on a regular basis is to join the Society, for only £12.50 (UK) or £25 (overseas) you will receive your magazines for a year, and be able to take part in the many events the Society also arranges.
Each magazine typically includes 10 or so substantial articles, several lighter articles, occasional poetry, correspondence and book reviews. It also contains programmes for various branches of the Society and contact details for those branches. Back issues of many of the magazines are available from the Society.
During the publication history of the magazine there have been only 4 editors (including the current editor). This stability has ensured that the magazine has retained a consistency in both quality and content, testimony also to the quality of the editors themselves. As you will see later, the magazine has developed in both style and content, and takes advantage of more modern printing techniques. To most readers the content of the magazine is more important than glossy photographs, that said, colour is now regularly being used within the pages of the magazine. What must be remembered is that contributors are not paid for their work, and the magazine is almost entirely funded by its membership.
Between 1968 and 1988 Harold Parsons was the editor. From 1988 to 2001 Stan Hill took over the mantle of editor, handing over the reins in August 2001 to David Cox. In 2002 the Society also launched its own website, this is edited by Mike Pearson, who now also edits the magazine.
Volume 1, Number 1 of The Blackcountryman went on sale in 1967. Being the first magazine must have been both daunting and exciting for Harold Parsons. He started with a blank canvas and was able to shape the magazine to suit his style. Daunting, because being the first issue, he must have worried about how the magazine would be received. With the Black Country Society in its first year the emphasis on providing quality must have been uppermost in his mind, later would come the fears of not having enough quality content to fill the pages.
Some standards were set in that first issue that are still in the magazine over 40 years later. The Editorial, Society News and Book Reviews have all featured in every issue. After that the editor had free rein over what material was included. Harold Parsons himself published an article titled "On Behalf of The Working Classes". He was supported by Dr. John M Fletcher, founder of the Society who wrote about "Wednesbury Spots and Boxes", and a second article that followed the declared aim of the Black Country Society to the letter "What is the Black Country?".
In the 1960s there was much ignorance about the phrase "The Black Country". There was no boundary, no border, no official recognition by way of signs. Fletcher quotes a Sunday newspaper article stating that Wednesbury was a town in the Potteries!
Dr. Fletcher in the concluding paragraph of his article sums up the problem:
"We can still speak of the Black Country as that area lying on the southern part of the South Staffordshire coalfield, although its boundaries today are not so clearly defined and its activities no longer base themselves on the exploitation of its mineral wealth".
On a lighter note, the first magazine contained an article titled "In Search of Aynuck and Ali" by Heavy Loader. There were also 3 poems, including "The Hurst Hill Gardener", "The Black Country Foreman" and "The Domino Mon".
Local dialect has always played a part in the magazine, and the first issue was no exception. Harold Parsons himself set the tone as you will see below as the Editorial is reproduced.
"When news of this publication was first announced in the Press I received a letter of approbation from a Black Countryman of whom I had never heard. It ended with the words:
"All power ter yer elber, ow'er kid"
- a simple, warm-hearted welcome of one Black Countryman to another in support of a much needed enterprise.
That is what The Blackcountryman is: a much needed enterprise. It is not some hastily conceived magazine launched optimistically in the hope of creating a readership in an age saturated with reading matter. The Blackcountryman HAS a readership. Black Country folk who have long clamoured for their own representative magazine.
"When is it coming out?" "Where can I get it?" they have been asking.
Well, here it is.
The Blackcountryman is FOR the Black Country, ABOUT the Black Country, and written mainly by people OF the Black Country, yet is at the same time sufficiently wide in scope and content to appeal to anyone with an interest in one of the main centres of British heritage.
There is no apology for the number of times the words Black Country appear within its pages. Nor is it grammatically "to a comma or two," for the reason that many of its contributors are not normally writers, their work having been amended only slightly in the interest of clarity.
Like The Black Country Society to which it owes its inception, The Blackcountryman is dedicated to promoting interest in the past, present and future of the Black Country. Articles in this issue range from a well-researched history of Sandwell Priory, to a descriptive round-up of the patrons of a Tipton pub. An authoritative article on government and local planning appears along with a name-by-name survey of a Coseley cricket team.
Yes, it is often parochial! But it will also be concerned with what Black Country folk are doing in the field of industrial technology, and about how their fingers reach out to span the world with exports.
Whether you live and work in the Black Country or have retired to the green belts, or even to other parts of the country or abroad, you will find each quarterly issue of The Blackcountryman of lasting and absorbing interest. Issues will include ....
But why go on-
Yoh kon read, cor yer?"
Comparing the first issue with the publication today there is much that is still regularly featured. There is variety, humour and poetry almost always find their way into the pages. The magazine remains one of the most informative local productions, and has been acclaimed as such. It continues to provoke debate about what the "Black Country" is all about. Today, anyone travelling through the region is in no doubt about where they are, there are signs telling them. Black Country folk are proud of their heritage. There is no greater insult to a Black Country mon (or woman for that matter) to be called a "brummie" or someone from "the midlands" Changes have been cosmetic, more modern printing methods can now be used, colour photographs for example.
It has taken time and effort to have the phrase recognised and accepted at all levels. That hard work started in issue 1, and continues today.
Harold was editor of The Blackcountryman from 1968 to 1988. His "Portrait of The Black Country" (published by Robert Hale, London 1986) went to both a re-print and a re-issue in paperback. It is widely recognised as a standard general book on The Black Country and is still available from the Society.
Harold was born in 1919 on the 23rd of April at 31 High Street, Woodside in Dudley. He was the only child of Dudley parents, his mother kept a shop in Dudley, his fathers' scoffing of the idea of book learning possibly stimulated Harold's love of the written word.
On leaving school Harold obtained a job in the office of Bayliss, Jones and Bayliss in Wolverhampton. He stayed with the company for 28 years, quietly exercising his writing skills. During the Second World War Harold was made a clerk in the RASC, with time on his hands he wrote two full-length novels that failed to attract a publisher. His first literary effort he received payment for was an account of the experience of a soldier returning to civvy street ("As You Were" Chambers Journal, June 1948).
In January 1948 Harold married a Tipton girl, Joan Tearne. In the early post-war years a paper shortage and depressed economy meant that the supply of journalistic material for publication exceeded the demand, and Harold decided he would have to exploit other journalistic avenues to supplement his income.
Harold turned his writing skills to supplying materials for comic strips, music hall comedians and broadcasters. Tommy Cooper, Morecambe and Wise, Frankie Howerd, Benny Hill and Charlie Chester being among those for whom he wrote. Harold achieved quite a reputation as a humorist and such was the demand for work that he decided to give up his job in Wolverhampton and become a full-time freelance journalist. It was a move that required courage, but he was confident he could be successful.
Never in the best of health, in 1965 Harold moved from Shavers End to the clearer air of Kinver. Harold was a prodigious worker, he did publicity and public relations work, wrote articles, edited trade magazines and took on the editorship of The Blackcountryman.
Harold also became a publisher, Halmar Productions of 1 Cedar Gardens, Kinver. The first of his volumes to appear was "Warwickshire - History, People and Place" (published in 1975). There followed further titles including, in 1982 his autobiography "Substance and Shadow", a fascinating social document revealing the character of the man.
The final volume of The Blackcountryman for which Harold was responsible was Summer 1988 (volume 21 issue 3). His deteriorating health forced him to give up, indeed in March 1989 when the Society Vice-Presidency was conferred on Harold he was unable to climb the stairs at the Saracen's Head in Dudley to accept the honour.
Harold continued to keep in close contact with the new editor, Stan Hill, inducting him into his new office and keeping in close contact with him. Harold continued to write to within a few days of his death on the 7th May 1992. For years he had endured a debilitating condition yet doggedly pursued his calling. He encouraged and helped other writers, had many friends and admirers, one of them being Black Country poet Jim William Jones who conducted his funeral service at Stourbridge Crematorium and recited a poignant poetic tribute he had composed.
Stan succeeded Harold Parsons as Editor of The Blackcountryman in October 1988 after 40 years in the teaching profession, the last 20 of which he was Warden of Dudley Teachers Centre at Himley Hall. There he was involved with teams of teachers introducing local studies in schools. He continued as Editor until August 2002 after producing 53 magazines. He is Black Country Society President for 2002-2003 and still works hard for the Society.
Born on the 21st March 1929 at West End in Brockmoor, Stan's parents were Albert Edward Hill from Oldswinford and Ethel Cartwright of Quarry Bank. Albert was a Royal Engineer in northern France for most of the First World War, Ethel was "in service" when she met Alfred.
In September 1934 Stan started school at Bent Street Infants in Brierley Hill. It is said that Stan believed that on his return from school on his first day that he would be able to read!
Stan qualified for King Edward's School (now King Edwards College) in Stourbridge and started there in September 1940. Much of his spare time from age 11 was spent in the confines of Brierley Hill railway station, assisting the porters with any tasks that arose. He also delivered fish from the station to the Central Fish and Chip shop at the top of Moor Street, receiving 9d for his effort from Mrs Preece (only 3d from her husband if he received the delivery). Stan soon established himself both with the station staff and other local traders to whom he delivered goods from the station.
Stan's "work" on the railway ended in 1946 when he went to Saltley Teacher Training College. He "lived" in a cubicle in the original 1850 building. The 17 year old students were surprised when the staff addressed them all as 'Mister'. On the 30th June 1948 Stan was informed he had qualified as a teacher.
Stan was offered his first job at Audnam School, Wordsley on the 5th July 1948, he was received by J Arthur Bradley (Headmaster), who influenced his career greatly. He 'filled-in' until November when he reported to Seaforth Barracks, Liverpool to commence National Service
Belfast was the location for Stan's initial 12-week training course, after this was completed he was transferred to the Army School of Education in Bodmin for a further 12-week Education Instructor's Course. Quickly promoted to Corporal he soon passed out as a Sergeant Instructor and was given a list of RAEC vacancies.
Originally to be posted to Hong Kong, Stan returned from embarkation leave to be told he was being sent to London district, eventually arriving at Tilbury Docks. Due to lack of work Stan was able to catch an early train home each Friday afternoon to see his girlfriend and also keep an eye on the local political position. After 18 months of National Service Stan was released in May 1950, returning to Audnam School.
Stan had a great interest in local politics, he became Chairman of Audnam Ward Labour Party. At the age of 23 he was a councillor on Brierley Hill Urban District Council. In 1954 he became Chairman of the Libraries and Arts Committee. On the 11th December 1954 he opened the new library at Kingswinford. In 1955 Stan became Chairman of Brierley Hill Urban District Council, the biggest in Staffordshire, he became the youngest civic head in the country, aged 26.
Stan first became involved with the Black Country Society in early 1971 when Dr. John Fletcher enrolled him as a member. There soon commenced a long friendship with Harold Parsons and an invitation in 1987 to succeed him as Editor of The Blackcountryman. Stan was preparing for retirement from teaching after 40 years, aged 58 years. At the end of 1987 Stan attended a Black Country Society committee meeting to inform them why he thought he could do the job of editing their magazine.
Stan watched Harold prepare the Summer issue in 1988, and in Autumn of that year produced his first edition. Harold remained a positive critic for the next 4 years until his death in 1992. A new feature added by Stan was that of biographies of Black Country Personalities. Each quarter such people as Julie Walters (Molly Weasley in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), Sue Lawley (current presenter of Desert Island Discs), Bert Bissell (The "Grand Old Man of Ben Nevis") and Sir Jack Hayward (Chairman of Wolverhampton Wanderers FC) have featured. The list recently reached 57 and to commemorate this event a book has recently been published featuring the first 57 personalities.
It is no coincidence that shortly after taking over as Editor, Stan raised the stakes in the campaign to make the Black Country Society better known. The phrase "The Black Country is now a state of mind" was also first used by Stan in an article in the Express and Star. The relationship with the newspaper has continued to develop over the years and the Dudley Chief Reporter, John Corser, is always one of the first to receive a new issue of the magazine.
After a run of 53 editions of The Blackcountryman Stan decided to retire once again, and in August 2001 handed over the "job" of Editor to David Cox. This does not mean the end of Stan's work however, he is still active within the Society. He was President for the year 2002-2003 and continues to work on behalf of the Society in the background. Long may Stan enjoy his active retirement.
David was born on the 7th October 1962. He has lived in Wordsley, Stourbridge all his life. From 1981-1993 he worked as a clerk at Midlands Electricity Plc. David studied at the University of Birmingham full-time 1993-96 (gaining a BA (Hons) in Ancient History and Archaeology). Between 1996 and 1998 he studied at Open University part-time and gained his Masters with Distinction in Modern History. From 1997-2001 David worked in the IT Department at Dudley MBC.
David has a PhD in Criminal Justice History from Lancaster University and has given numerous conference papers, and also had articles published in a variety of journals, including The Police History Society Journal, Brewery History Journal, and Transactions of Alveley Historical Society. He first submitted an article to The Blackcountryman in Summer 1997 (vol. 30 no. 3), and after submitting several further articles, was subsequently approached by Stan Hill as his possible successor.
In 2000 David was co-opted onto the Committee, and appointed Editor of The Blackcountryman in September 2001, his first edited issue being Winter 2001 (vol. 35 no. 1). In 2002, he prepared Stan Hill's "57 Black Country People" for publication. David's hobbies include birdwatching, cycling and walking. David handed over the reins of the magazine to Mike Pearson after he successfully published the 150th issue.
Articles in The Blackcountryman:
Greensforge Roman Sites (Summer 1997)